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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

"The Last Temptation of Noah" (1988)

Recently, discussing the floods that have inundated parts of the UK, some friends reminded me about a sermon I'd once given at the Jewish New Year. What they remembered though was that as I was sharing this story-sermon, a thunderstorm had broken out and water started to pour through the synagogue roof. I'd like to claim that this was a cleverly-orchestated special effects stunt that I'd managed to engineer. (Alas, it was just a leaking roof).  But in the light of the current travails the country has been suffering, I've dug out the story/sermon and thought I'd share it here. I must have done a fair bit of background research because I can see that it weaves together motifs from both the Biblical narrative of Noah and traditional midrashim, as well as trying to address contemporary concerns. I guess that, in spite of its somewhat gauche tone, it could be said to have stood the test of time. So for those who are interested - as well as those who only remember the special effects - here it is. (The title was pinched - or 'adapted', as we writers say - from Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ", which had come out that year).


                                    Even before the Disaster I felt misunderstood. I only wanted a quiet life. To come home after work, relax and rest. After all - and this used to be my private joke, though it feels pretty grim now - that's what my name Noah means: rest. 

                                    Apart from my work and my family I couldn't really be bothered with anything else. I didn't have many interests, not even much ambition. I used to sit in the office during the day and dream of the journey home, opening the door, playing with the kids (when they were smaller), or, later on, helping them with their homework. In the evening I'd switch on the TV in order to switch off my thoughts, those terrible thoughts that kept coming, waves of them, more and more insistently over the years. All I ever really wanted was a rest - from the pressures that we all suffered. Just a rest from it all: the bills, the relatives, the dinner parties. Rest: it was all I wanted. Honestly. 

                                    Oh yes, I was known for my honesty. Even those who didn't like me said I had integrity. They used other words too, which sounded good, words like 'upright', 'blameless', even (God help me) 'righteous'. But I never trusted them - not the words, nor the people. Words had lost their solidity, their truthfulness, long before. In those days words meant their opposite.  

                                    When that TV presenter interviewed me (near the end this was, after I'd made all the fuss), he was the one who called me 'righteous'. But I could hear in the tone of his voice how he really meant 'self-righteous', how the compliment disguised the attack. And who knows, maybe he was right, maybe I did begin to feel a bit self-righteous. Because I did know what was going to happen. I wasn't taken in by all those words: freedom of opportunity, economic growth, individual choice...I could see what was going on, all that heartbreak beneath the surface, and what was going to happen if we didn't change. I did know it would end in disaster; but I didn't know just how bad it would turn out. I didn't, honestly...I can tell you don't believe me. It's all right - I'm used to that. Nobody ever believed me then, either. Before.  

                                    You see, I worked in industry, middle-management. Yes, of course I was a professional - all our friends were. The firm made agricultural and forestry equipment. When it expanded we went into animal feed, fertilisers, that sort of thing - quite a broad spread - even livestock eventually. We were successful too: public company, safe investment, high annual returns, particularly good Third World market, what with all the problems they kept having. I was responsible for overseas sales. Quite an irony really when you think about it, considering what happened.  

                                    I was able to laugh more in those days too. Earlier on that was. I used to enjoy having fun: a good party, that sort of thing. I don't think I ever entirely lost my sense of humour - but I kept noticing things I'd prefer not to have known about. I'd read a report here, hear a programme there, bits and pieces of knowledge on the periphery of my consciousness. I tried to keep the knowledge at a distance, but it became harder. Things kept happening, kept forcing themselves on my attention. 

                                    First we had that string of warm years: '80, '81, '83, '87, '88 - the hottest since records began they said. It didn't bother me really: I was only worried about getting a bit of sun on our holidays. And where I went it rained anyway. But the statistics were global ones: it was beginning to warm up rather dramatically. Only a few degrees over a century didn't sound so much, but researchers in one country began to see the changes in plants and trees, and then another group at the other side of the world discovered that the world's beaches were eroding. These were just a couple of the warnings of the impending crisis.  

                                    I did mention it to a few people at work - after all it could have had implications for our sales - but they just shrugged and said that these kinds of reports are not reliable, they come and go, you know how it is... 

                                    And although I didn't really know how it was, it was easier at the beginning to change the subject and ask what home computer they thought I should buy. It felt safer ground.  

                                    But then the dreams started. All that water imagery, all that flooding, swimming, drowning, seas and swimming pools, struggling to keep afloat - every night a new variation on the theme. My analyst told me that this was ‘archetypal symbolism’: the struggle of the Self to emerge from the Sea of Consciousness. I changed my analyst. The next one told me it was about separation from mother.  

                                    And all the time I knew that something else was going on. It's not that they were wrong - but something else was going on, much bigger than me. Everyone had heard about the 'greenhouse effect', how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like glass in a greenhouse, letting the sun's rays through to the earth but also trapping some of the heat that would otherwise be radiated back into space. We were burning all that coal and oil and gas, more and more of it, year after year - and the planet was heating up. Then there were those other gases: like the ones in those take-away cartons. Some firms changed them, others said the evidence was inconclusive (though of course it ‘merited further study’). But that still left aerosol sprays and even fridges - and I liked ice in my gin and tonic. 

                                    I really didn't know what to do. But I soon knew all the responses I'd get. The Chairman of the Board put it to me with his usual delicacy: what do you want us to do - grow our own vegetables? bicycle to work? light the office with candles? 

                                    The problem was that I didn't have any answers. I only had fears and questions and intuitions - and they wouldn't go away. But it was that presentation I did at the shareholders meeting that finally wrecked me. I spoke about the rainforests we were destroying (indirectly of course: our firm only sold the equipment); I gave them all the facts and figures, how the earth was such a fragile interconnected ecosystem (oh yes, by then I'd learnt the jargon), that what the inhabitants of planet earth were doing was quietly conducting a giant environmental experiment. Were it to be brought before any responsible local council for approval it would be firmly rejected as having potentially disastrous consequences.  

                                    At the meeting there were a variety of responses: anger and boredom mainly, though a few people seemed rather subdued afterwards. Perhaps it was naive to expect anything more - after all I'd just bought a new car as well. I didn't want to change my lifestyle either. I was comfortable, I admit it. But we all were then - at least in the circles I mixed in.  

                                    Getting the push after that speech was actually a blessing in disguise. I devoted myself more and more to trying to get people to see what was going on around them all the time. I got involved with political groups, environmental groups. I started writing letters to The Guardian. I even spoke to religious groups (strange: the Christians were always more interested than the Jews).  

                                                I gave the same speech wherever I went. 'The climate that has allowed the growth of civilisation and agriculture - and to which all our crops, customs and structures are adapted - is virtually certain to disappear. The world will become warmer than at any time since the emergence of humanity on earth. This threatens to take place over the next forty years. Humanity will find it hard to adapt, particularly in a world fragmented by national boundaries and competing interests. Harvests will fail more drastically. the cities we live in will go under water.'
                                    People began to hate me for what I was saying. They used to avoid me, fear me: fear what I was saying, I suppose. A poet had written 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality' and it was true. I didn't blame people - I couldn't bear it either. My wife began to catch me talking to myself. I was trying to keep myself sane, keep myself from the madness of knowing that something was inevitable - that was the word the experts used - unless we worked together. Funnily enough, I did have faith in humanity then. I believed that people could change, with help and encouragement. And groups of people working together - communities - could do a lot. But first we had to realise we'd taken a wrong direction, we had to turn from what's best only for ourselves, our family, our community, our nation. 

                                    Near the end I realised that we needed to pray too - though at first I was more sceptical about that. Religion had always felt a bit too cosy and comfortable: too much security was on offer. And I certainly had no security to offer anyone. I used to take myself off for long walks and look at the mess around me - the squalor, the poverty, the drugged ones, the violence, the neglect, the corruption, the decay. 
                                    I saw the goodness too, in people I met, the beauty in small things. I could see infinity in a grain of sand and feel eternity in an hour. But overall, on these walks, I felt the inferno, the 'moronic inferno' one of those clever Jewish novelists called it: the levelling down of contemporary life where people found themselves in that chaotic state, overwhelmed by all kinds of outer forces - political, technological, military, economic - which carry everything before them with a kind of disorder in which we were supposed to survive with all our human qualities. Who really had sufficient internal organisation to resist, let alone to flourish? 

                                    It wasn't possible to go on that way. And in their hearts and souls, people knew it. It wasn't just me: I really was just an ordinary person. In my generation I was nothing special. I knew it. Later on, long after the Disaster, when they told those stories about me, things got changed somehow. It was true that I became wholeheartedly committed to speaking the truth I experienced, sharing my vision of what I knew was going to happen. But if I'd lived in a less corrupt time, nobody would ever have heard of me. Even the rabbis acknowledged that, later.  

                                    I could never explain properly those intuitions I'd have when I was off walking. I just knew in the end that I had changed and that others could change too. It was very simple. I had an inner voice that I just had to trust. Everyone had that voice deep inside them. It was obvious. But in those days so many temptations drowned out that knowing voice, so many possibilities of seduction away from our still and silent truth.  

                                    I once made a list, half-jokingly, of what I thought we needed to remember to be fully human, to be what we ought to be in this world. I jotted down seven things - it surprised me there were so few. I sent them on a postcard to a friend and she wrote back saying I sounded like some kind of religious nut. It sounded, she said - she was very cynical though - as if I was walking with God when I went off on my expeditions round town. I wasn't hurt by this. Well, not really. It stayed in my mind though, that phrase, 'walking with God'. 

                                    Later on, when they told those stories about me, they seemed to think it was a compliment: that somehow this was an uplifting, desirable experience for a person to have. Actually it was hell. 

                                    I'll tell you the list, but before I do I want to say that I've gone against most of them in my time. There were so many temptations then, not even a saint could have resisted them. And I was no saint. But I do know there are some things that just have to be. If we're going to make it through this time. And call it walking with God, if you like.  

                                    First, there has to be a system of justice. Real justice allows a society to function and the individual to retain dignity. And a system of political and legal justice means that the disadvantaged are protected from abuse - the abuse from power, money or class. 

                                    Secondly: murder - it's not on. We have to deal with our violent feelings in some other way. And leading on from there, thirdly: robbery, theft, is out too. We have to find an alternative way of channelling our greed, and our envy of what others have.  

                                    Nor can incest be allowed. That wise professor from Vienna eventually uncovered just how much we do secretly want to express our sexuality inside our family. But we just can't have our mummy or daddy or children or siblings in that way. We've got to find someone else to do it with. And that reminds me of what happened after the Disaster. We were in such chaos. There was just our family, and my middle boy Ham did something to me which I can never forgive him for, that bugger, God damn him! But that's another story.  

                                    Yes, the fifth on the list is blasphemy. It's no use my letting rip like that. I still have to find a way of getting rid of this anger. The sixth thing I listed I called idolatry. It was a handy word, it covered a lot of things. Actually I was thinking of all those adverts on TV, and all those colour supplements offering me happiness on every page. We were drowning in luxury in those days: so many divinely decadent choices. We knew it couldn't go on forever but we worshipped production and consumption. I loved buying things - it made me feel so secure, so good about myself. Crazy, really, looking back. 

                                    Last on my list, number seven, sounds strange now, though at the time it made sense. I called it 'not eating flesh cut from a living animal'. You see I wanted something on my list that captured the essence of evil: that degraded the one who performed it and cause pain and terror to the victim. I suppose I could have chosen another image, another way to express this. Towards the end people came up with worse things, believe me.  

                                    Anyway, I thought out these seven things during my walks. Afterwards - after 'it' happened I mean - people saw them as the natural religious basis vital to the existence of any human society. I suppose I'm rather proud of that. They even called them after me: 'the seven laws given to the descendants of Noah'.  

                                    Right. I'm nearly finished now. I just want to tell you what happened in the end, when the Disaster came.  

                                    I saw it all so clearly: we'd reached the point where the rate of environmental change in my lifetime was going to be many times the maximum that our planet's eco-system could endure. There was no escaping this fate unless a radical transformation took place. One day I saw it all so clearly that I grew really desperate. I felt more hopeless than I'd ever done before. I felt closed in, with this great weight around me. I'd built it myself, this mental structure I'd constructed from all the evidence I'd gathered. It was like a vessel of doom I lived in. I was going crazy inside it. I was in complete despair.  

                                    I just wanted to be left alone. The understanding I had was too much for me. I felt hundreds of years old. It felt completely hopeless. I felt overwhelmed by...helplessness, that's the word: I was completely helpless, like a baby. I couldn't do anything more. I had no strength left.  

                                    And I started to cry. It'd never happened before. After all I was a man. But I did, I broke down, in front of my family: all of them were there - my wife and my sons and their wives. And I wept and wept. Tears of bitterness. Tears of remorse. Tears of anger. Tears of grief. I cried and I cried and I just...floated away.  

                                    It's hard to describe now. The sadness just flooded out of me. It went on and on, all those years and years of frustration and pain trapped inside - it all welled up and spilled out. The tears just seemed to pour out of me - it felt like days - for the sadness of it all, and the pity.  

                                    The rest you know of course. It's history - of a sort. It's in the books, though I know people argue over the details. Nothing ever was the same again.  

                                    Though there was one helpful moment: when I saw that rainbow. Yes, I know it's only the reflection of the sun in moist atmosphere, but I'd never really looked at one before. Really looked, I mean. That one time though, soon after the Disaster, I saw those seven colours arched above me, translucent and glorious and shimmering. And I suddenly remembered the seven laws I'd jotted down on that card; and it was my conceit, I know, but I felt there was some connection between those seven basic norms for how we are to live together and those seven basic colours in which the world is enveloped.  

                                    There was a harmony at that moment: seeing how the natural world and our human world reflected each other's inner grace. And at that moment I knew, I knew as clearly as if I heard a voice speak it in my ear, I knew that this disaster could never be again. Not ever. It felt like a promise. If I were a religious man I'd call it a blessing. Never again - such relief, I can't tell you.  

                                    'While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease'. The words just formed themselves in my head. It would never happen again. That's all there is to say.  

                                    Oh, I almost forgot. The ‘last temptation of Noah’. You want to know the very last temptation? It was after it was all over and we had to pull ourselves together and start again. That was hard. We didn't know where we were, where we were going, what we were doing. Everything had gone. We survivors felt so helpless so much of the time. And the hardest part was that we kept remembering how it'd been before: so comfortable, so secure - you'll never know. That was the worst part: I couldn't help but remember it.  

                                    I became very morose, self-pitying. I just wanted to forget, to forget how it'd been. And, I admit it, I started to drink. They never tell the story this way, but this is how it was. They always make me out as the father of vineyards and winemaking, but I'm telling you: soon I was drinking all the time - I just wanted to blot it all out.  

                                    And that was the last temptation: the temptation to blot it all out, to forget the knowledge I carried, the understanding I had, the lonely experiences I'd been through, the intuitions I'd borne all these years. I tried to drown myself in drink: another flood.  

                                    But it wasn't to be of course. It seems that my destiny is to remember, to remain aware. I never did get my rest. I learnt that death is the only release from the burden of consciousness. And that while I lived, my work was just given to me to do. It was wherever I happened to be.  

                                    I even wrote a poem about it towards the end. Someone else later took the credit for it of course - but then none of us is perfect. Are we?


                                    To open eyes when others close them

                                    to hear when others do not wish to listen

                                    to look when others turn away

                                    to seek to understand when others give up

                                    to rouse oneself when others accept

                                    to continue the struggle even when one is
                                    not the strongest

                                    to cry out when others keep silent

                                    to be a Jew

                                    it is that

                                    it is first of all that

                                    and further

                                    to live when others are dead

                                    and to remember when others have
                    (Second Day Rosh Hashanah sermon, Finchley Reform Synagogue, 1988)

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

“The bells! The bells!” or ‘On the Wish to Ward Off Evil’

Nearly a thousand years ago, in the 1070s, a 70’ long piece of embroidered cloth we now call the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother to depict the events leading up to the Norman Conquest. One section shows the funeral of Edward the Confessor, who died some months before the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (And All That). If you look carefully at that scene, you’ll find - down at the bottom  - two people carrying bells in each of their hands.
The use of bells in religious ceremonies goes back a long way, in the West at least to ancient Rome. And not just religious ceremonies. For many cultures around the world from time immemorial have used bells to ward off evil spirits: in India and China and Japan they used them alongside wind chimes.  And the scene in the Bayeux Tapestry might well be part of that tradition, the folk belief that evil could be averted by frightening it off, so to speak, with bells. Wedding bells too, in Christianity, belong in this tradition: they announce, and celebrate, the couple – but they also ward off the evil that was felt to lurk whenever joy is present.

These thoughts are prompted by a curious detail in this week’s Torah text. The robe of the High Priest, worn when he was performing his cultic duties, is described in elaborate detail in Exodus 28. It includes the instruction that his robe was to be adorned with bells on its hem (verse 35) – “and the sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy space, before the Eternal One, and when he comes out, v’lo yamut”, (literally, ‘so that he does not die’). Archeologists in Jeruslaem have recently discovered such a bell near the Temple Mount.  

The Golden Bell
As so often in the Torah, there’s no explanation given for these mysterious bells. They can hardly be there out of a worry that the High Priest would get lost – it’s not the sort of bells we put round  a domestic cat, or the Alpine bells round the necks of cattle or sheep or goats.  A traditional explanation suggests that it could have been an announcing bell so that people would know when the High Priest was entering the Holy of Holies for the sacred business of communing with the Divine – a bit like the one that begins and ends that other sacred activity, the opening and closing of the New York Stock Exchange.  Or perhaps, like the pomegranates that also adorned the hem of his robe, a symbol of the fruitfulness of religious life, the bells were symbolic – representing connectedness with the divine, a connectedness that goes beyond words.  
Or perhaps it is evidence - to go back to the Bayeux Tapestry - of that ancient belief that ringing bells can ward off evil?  Don’t we all wish, profoundly wish, that we could keep ‘evil’ away - stop bad things from happening - just by ringing a bell? Whether it is ringing a bell, or spitting three times (p,p,p), or stroking a rabbit’s foot, or not walking under ladders, or wearing an amulet blessed by a wonder rabbi (or by the Kabbalah Centre), or any one of a hundred thousand folk customs that have arisen in all ages and all places on the planet – how amazing life would be if there could be a straightforward link between an action we take (something we do, or say, or wear, or pray) and the warding off of unpleasant, unhappy, upsetting, disturbing events,  things that are part of the weave  of life but cause us misery, pain, distress.
Beneath our rational selves, and our conscious, modern minds that might describe all of these things as superstitions, as attempts to control life in all its uncontrollable randomness, deep in us we can probably locate a primitive emotional need to believe that we might have some way of controlling our fate, of doing something that might prevent a disaster, or an accident - for ourselves, or those we love. Harm can be avoided, we believe (we desperately want to believe), if only I’m good enough, or pious enough, or superstitious enough, or careful enough.
What we humans can’t bear, don’t seem to be able to bear - and our culture colludes in this in all sorts of ways -  is the sheer contingency of life, its messiness, its unpredictability, its randomness, its haphazardness. You can get into your car and if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know that, through no fault of your own, that you can be in an accident. It can shake you up, it may even kill you – heaven forbid. And we say ‘heaven forbid’ – or p,p,p as my grandmother would do - as a prophylactic: as if just by saying those two words it could stop it happening. Or the parallel belief that if we don’t say it, it might happen:  because now we have thought it, it just could happen and we’d have brought it into being just by thinking it. We tie ourselves in knots because if, in the end, what happens to us is out of our control – that knowledge is unbearable, the feelings of helplessness are unbearable.  
We would all do anything to avoid  these kinds of random events happening. We would love to know how we can avoid distress and pain - but we  can’t, and some part of us knows we can’t, knows that life is not organized like that: even our bodies themselves are part of that contingency sown into the fabric of life. We know our bodies  are fragile, vulnerable, and we can look after them as much as we can, eat the right things, exercise them, take care of them - but they still let us down in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.
Being an embodied human being is a daily lesson in the essential fragility of our humanness – and our mental  states too are equally as vulnerable, however much we might meditate, or medicate, or practice mindfulness, or however many years of therapy we might have had.
Bad stuff happens. And no bell ringing will make a difference. We are not that omnipotent – even though lodged in us is an irrational belief that we are: that we can manage our fate by just taking the right precautions; or having the right security systems in place, in our homes, or synagogues, or computers; or just following the right Health and Safety guidelines, or having the right child protection schemes in place. One very modern illusion – a deeply needed belief, but an illusion – is that we can legislate our way to happiness by removing distress, or just alleviating the possibility of distress; that we can have systems and laws to stop bad things happening to us, or to our children, or to ‘the vulnerable’ – although we are all vulnerable. That is of the essence of our humanity: our vulnerability, our mortality, – “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (John Donne, ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions’, 1624).
So although we don’t know – can’t know – the purpose of the bells on the High Priest’s robe (the Talmud discusses whether there were 36 or 72 of them), what we read is that these bells, on this garment, were a matter of ultimate concern in the scheme of things. The Hebrew text intuits that what was going on in these arcane rituals was a matter of life and death. He was to wear these bells v’lo yamut, (‘so that he does not die’).
But maybe we can understand this phrase figuratively, and existentially. I prefer to think that the wearing of these bells was v’lo yamut  - ‘lest he stops living in the moment’. By which I mean that these bells kept him alert, kept him awake, moment by moment, every step of the way, every movement of his body, even as he breathed in and out, as we all breathe in and out, the bells kept him alive to the mystery, the awesome nature of being alive now, as we are alive now – though we have no bells to remind us that this is a thing of awe: human life, in all its fragility and vulnerability, all those cells, all that DNA, all that drama of heart and lungs, liver and kidneys and bones and brain, all that ‘three pounds of jelly’ (as Oliver Sacks, with well-tempered irony, describes the brain ) through which everything flows and filters...what are we to make of it all, this body of ours, this mind of ours, with its memories, its feelings, its knowledge, alongside its limitations, its failures, its fading powers? We have nothing as simple as a bell to remind us of the awesome nature of life, daily life, our life, our being here now.
The bells kept the High Priest attentive to the mystery of being, at every moment. Now and now and now. And this, I would suggest,  is the holy space he entered – this awareness of the present moment in all its kedushah, its unfolding holiness of being . The Torah text gives us a picture not just of an archaic ritual that has disappeared into the mythic past – but a picture of our inheritance, we ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:6). When we read of these bells  we turn our inner ears to the music of the present moment - we are the priests whose task it is to enter into the presence of the sacred: this music of the sacred, in each moment, is sometimes so soft we can hardly hear it, it’s sometimes so quiet we forget to hear it, it’s sometimes so faint we think there is nothing there.
We need to be reminded, every day, twice every day – Shema Yisrael, ‘Hear O Israel, Listen out Yisrael’, when we go out and when we come in, the bells of the High Priest are still to be heard, each moment, reminding us of the holiness of life itself. And if we don’t attune ourselves to listening in – it is as good as being dead. This is the sacred drama of a kingdom of priests, our daily drama, life-giving, life-preserving: it is within the randomness of life, that holiness is to be found.
The more time we spend trying to control life to avoid bad things happening, the further we get from contentment. We can drive ourselves, and others, mad If we cannot embrace life as – in the final analysis – uncontrollable, as uncontrollable as those bells on the hem of the High Priest. Every moment he moved, they sounded. Every moment he moved they reminded him: you are alive now, and this is sacred. However still you are, you will hear the bells, faintly, the background to life. It’s when you stop hearing the bells, when the bells stop – that’s it, that’s the end of your life. The dead don’t hear the bells. They are for the living, and for life.  Shema Yisrael.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, February 8th, 2014]